Monday, September 28, 2009

110. Darmstadtium


Science Made Ugly

Science in the abstract is a cerebral thing, a lofty and selfless Olympian pursuit of truth. In practice, however, there can be a lot on the line—funding, promotion, glory. So egos get involved. Passions are aroused. Sometimes it gets ugly.

A case in point is the competition for bragging rights to the discovery of element 110.

It began when an international team of researchers headed by Yuri Oganessian at the JINR in Russia (then the USSR) boasted of doing the deed first by bombarding uranium with argon-140 ions and then by bombarding thorium with calcium-44 ions. This claim was disputed, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) declined to give credit to the Ion Jets, as the team styled itself.

Then "Big Al" Ghiorso and his homies at Lawrence Berkeley—they called themselves the Supercolliders—made a bid for turf. But again, the evidence was too close for the IUPAC to call.

Soon thereafter, the Atom Smashers, a Teutono-Russo-Finno-Slovak gang operating out of the GSI in Darmstadt, said they'd bombarded a lead target with nickel ions and produced three atoms of what was then given the temporary handle ununnilium. Unfortunately, by the time the IUPAC referees got there, the atoms were gone, decayed to hassium, seaborgium, and rutherfordium.

Finally, the Ion Jets, under their new leader Yuri Lazarev (Oganessian had been deposed in a knife fight), said they'd created element 110 by bombarding plutonium with sulfur-34 ions, and also as part of the alpha-decay chain from their discovery of element 114. By this point, emotions were running so high that the IUPAC judges changed their names, moved to a neighboring city, and hid under their beds, waiting for the whole thing to blow over.

Which is how it came about that all three teams agreed to settle the matter once and for all, in the parking lot out behind the gym after the big game. They brought shivs and zip-guns, and wore their gang smocks. When the blood stopped flowing, the Darmstadt Atom Smashers were the last ones standing. Which is why ununnilium is now officially called darmstadtium.

Science isn't pretty. But the scientific method gets results. If you don't believe me, you can always take it up with Yuri the Knife.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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